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The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) identified the Idaho National Lab (INL) as its preferred location for the construction and operation of a new nuclear test reactor in a final environmental impact statement released May 13.

Department officials have said a fast-neutron versatile test reactor (VTR) capable of performing faster irradiation testing is necessary to modernize its nuclear research and accelerate advanced nuclear fuels, materials, instrumentation, and sensors.

The 300 MW reactor would be a pool-type, sodium-cooled reactor that uses a uranium-plutonium-zirconium metal fuel. It would be based on many of the design and passive safety features of GE Hitachi’s PRISM small modular reactor. According to DOE researchers, the PRISM design would require several changes, notably the elimination of electricity production and the accommodation for experimental locations within the core.

Conceptual design of versatile test reactor, U.S. Department of Energy Final Environmental Impact Statement.

This first new test reactor to be built in the U.S. in decades would also incorporate technologies adapted from previous sodium-cooled fast reactors. The DOE had a fast reactor, the Experimental Breeder Reactor II, operating in eastern Idaho until it was shut down in 1994 as the nation turned away from nuclear power.

This VTR project, underway since early 2019, is being led by INL in partnership with five other national laboratories: Argonne, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, Pacific Northwest, and Savannah River. The effort several other industry and university partners.

At the Idaho National Lab, the DOE would site the test reactor adjacent to the INL’s materials and fuels complex and use existing hot cell and other facilities at the complex for post-irradiation examination and spent nuclear fuel treatment. Department officials said this location was selected primarily because the project would make use of the complex facilities, along with the anticipated small environmental impacts of siting the facility there.

Conceptual site layout of versatile test reactor project, U.S. Department of Energy Final Environmental Impact Statement.

The environmental impact statement also weighs siting the VTR at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in eastern Tennessee. A third option would be to not construct the reactor at all.

According to the environmental impact statement, siting of the versatile test reactor at either INL or Oak Ridge would generally have small environmental consequences. DOE researchers said the environmental consequences would be smaller at the INL Site, because the total footprint would be smaller at the INL site. This is mainly because a new hot cell facility would need to be constructed if the reactor were located at Oak Ridge.

The DOE has not identified a preferred location for where it would perform reactor fuel production. The latest research has evaluated producing fuel for the reactor at INL or at the DOE’s Savannah River site in South Carolina. It would include preparing feedstock for the fuel, fabricating fuel pins and assembling the fuel pins into reactor fuel.

DOE said it plans to continue technical evaluations to determine the location of reactor fuel production activities. Once a preferred reactor fuel production option has been identified, DOE would announce the preferred option in the Federal Register.

A Record of Decision for reactor fuel production would be published no sooner than 30 days after the DOE announces its preferred option in the Federal Register.

The final VTR environmental impact statement follows the draft released in December 2020. During the review and comment period on the draft statement, the DOE held two web-based public hearings, and received comments from the public.

A copy of the Final VTR EIS can be downloaded here.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will publish a Notice of Availability of the final VTR environmental impact statement in the Federal Register on May 20, 2022. The DOE will then issue a decision on whether it plans to proceed with building the reactor not more than 30 days after the publication.

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